Productivity burnout is one of my favorite subjects, maybe because I had several close encounters with the phenomenon. I suffered work-related burnout periods more than once, and so did most of my students and friends. Each time I address the subject, I choose a slightly different perspective. Hope there will be some new ideas in this article as well. For more reading, I have chosen texts have chosen texts here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Usually, we address burnout as something people try to avoid. I am not sure this is the case.
Many of you know my wife Anna, who invented this particular speedlearning methodology, and the best teacher and coach I know. If you can afford 1:1 with Anna, this is a life-changing experience (contact email@example.com to schedule). Anna helped tens of thousands of people to become more productive. You may think this is a hidden commercial, but there is something darker hiding here: Anna is so dedicated to her students that she practically cannot decline a request to teach. She is working as much as she can, well beyond the reason. The only thing that allows her to rest is a medical emergency, and she has several medical emergencies each year: chronic back pains, rising sugar levels, occasional inflammation. Since Anna’s motivation is not earning money, but helping people, she basically cannot prioritize one student over another, and subliminally she has something like a burnout-wish: a desire for a justified rest. All of Anna’s medical emergencies can be related to stress.
I have a list of hundreds of ideas I want to check and projects I want to finish. And this list is both my treasure and my prison. I do prioritize them by potential return on investment, my value system, how energetic I feel, and how long I delayed the execution. Still, occasionally I prefer to close my computer and declare a scheduled burn-out. I do not need a physical or psychological emergency, I am the master of my burnouts and if I need one I fake or take one. These deliberate burnouts are very controlled. Basically, I have a digital diet, stop writing and spend time with people, drinking beer and talking about life. Usually, these events coincide with holidays, because this is more convenient for me.
I know that my family is not representative and many people suffer devastating and uncontrollable burnouts, yet a small medical emergency or a convenient retreat can be just the burnout we wish for.
Permission to relax
Many people do not have heavy commitments with demanding schedules and deadlines, except the commitments they impose on themselves. If you do not have contractual obligations to the clients, several small children, and a spouse working 25/7, you may easily give yourself a permission to relax.
What does relaxation look like? Probably not a search for experiences, like an expensive trip abroad where you want to utilize every moment you have. Slouching in bad without moving much may also be too extreme. Here are some ideas:
- Art and culture. Indulge in a good fiction book, visit a museum, see a stand-up show, visit opera or watch a classic movie. The price and experience may vary, but the element of escape is always there. Being without goals, passively enjoying something great, is refreshing. And the potential experiences may be great.
- Friends, family, and nature. This can potentially be more stressful than the job, so it is very important to let go. Letting go may involve alcohol. The kids will mess up, some nasty situations may happen and this should be acceptable for everybody. The focus is simply being together with people whom we accept and who accept us the way we are, without hidden agendas and intervention of digital media.
- Sensory diet. This is something I personally never did. Some people reduce the sensory input to the bare minimum, meditating or slouching under the sun, or performing a repetitive physical activity. I always wanted to go to a Vipassana retreat and simply be silent for several days. This is in my “to do” list, and some day I will probably do this.
- Manual chores. While cleaning is a hard work, it can be great for stress. We remove things that annoy us, clean up the clutter, reorganize things, review things we did not use for a while and think about them, occasionally find a forgotten treasure, and get a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment with very little investment. Cooking is a lot of fun too, especially if the recipe is creative, what we cook is both tasty and healthy, and we enjoy eating it with a company of friends.
- Creative outbursts. I life writing, and while currently writing is a part-time job I do semi-professionally, it is still very different and significantly less stressful compared with programming and entrepreneurial activities. With small children, I have no real opportunity to paint like I used to when I was young, so I am trying to switch into photography.
Some people would add to the list semi-professional sports, volunteer work, coaching or teaching gigs. While I understand how these can work for an extrovert, I am still too much of an introvert to enjoy these activities without getting stressed. Overeating or substance abuse also would not make me feel better, even though I might enjoy an occasional cigar to cheer me up on a rainy day.
Escape the family
The family is a great source of stress in all stages of the family life: being lonely, looking for a partner, trying to build up a relationship, raising kids, taking care of sick family members, experiencing separation from the loved ones. Therefore family related burnouts might be as common as work related burnouts.
We try to escape the family by spending more time at work, and we try to escape the work by spending more time with the family, and occasionally we need to escape both. There are several easy recipes for escaping the family and having no bad feelings:
- Romantic getaway. Find a babysitter and spend some time with your spouse. Do things that both of you love. Maybe go to a cooking workshop, or a dancing lesson, or a romantic walk. Maybe, change scenery and go to a very different place with different rules: another country, a farm, a beach.
- Sports with friends or a trip with kids. One spouse stays with the kids, while the other takes a sportive vacation with friends. Alternatively, one spouse stays home, while the other takes the kids for some learning experience. Both spouses should be able to take such vacations. Since Anna is somewhat younger and more energetic, typically she is taking the vacation either with friends or with kids while I stay home and work on secret projects (e.g. make some mess and clean up just before Anna’s return).
- Find yet another job. Want to escape the main job and the family? Get a hobby, or yet another job, or learn something new. This is a perfect excuse to do something outside the work-home balance.
Living with yourself is a hard task. This is possibly the only person we cannot escape no matter where we go. With time we will have our quirks: we will procrastinate, beat ourselves for mistakes that we do, frustrate over the opportunities we failed to take and resent the bad habits we somehow acquired. Over time being with ourselves is very tiresome, so we may want to escape. Not all escape modes are equally legitimate, here I want to focus on the most effective.
- Be empathic and good listener. When we listen to other people and empathize with them, we escape our own shell and experience to some extent what it is like to be another person. We can also help people, acquire friends and earn respect.
- Be passionate and responsible. When we focus on a job that needs to be done, we tend to forget about ourselves. “Flow” is a wonderful productive state to be in. And this is good for our social status.
- Stay positive and take challenges. If we can negotiate to do something positive and challenging instead of our main job for a little while, this is usually a win-win situation. Quite often we are not in the critical path of our main project, and everybody will be only happy if we take such activity upon ourselves. At work, I enjoy writing patents, evaluating future or competitive technology, and temporarily finishing the project for people who cannot deliver due to personal reasons.
- Actively procrastinate. If we do not procrastinate too much, people are very accepting and understanding to our procrastination. It is OK to come to work late from time to time, go out and smell flowers, drink coffee, not near the cooler but in a fancy coffee shop, or even take a short nap on your working desk. You can defy your own productivity and come up with new creative ideas, just do it within reason.
- Get more sleep or daydream. This is very basic, and maybe the most successful way to let go of everything. Do not oversleep though, because it is not very good.